The Forbidden Gaze:
The Veiling of the Gold Plates and Joseph Smith’s Redefinition of Sacred Space

For six weeks in the summer of 2011, researchers convened at the Maxwell Institute to discuss the topic “The Cultural History of the Gold Plates.” The seminar was sponsored by the Mormon Scholars Foundation, hosted by the Maxwell Institute, and directed by Richard Bushman.The Summer Seminar Working Papers 2011 were presented at a BYU symposium on August 18, 2011. Working papers are unpublished, unedited, unpolished drafts. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the Maxwell Institute or BYU.

 

At the time of the Kirtland Bank failure in 1838, Stephen Burnett wrote to his friend, Lyman Johnson, that Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon were “liars” and that they had “filched the monies of the Church from their pockets and brought them nigh unto distruction.” Burnett then confessed:

I have reflected long and deliberately upon the history of this church & weighed the evidence for & against it—loth to give it up—but when I came to hear Martin Harris state in a public congregation that he never saw the plates with his natural eyes only in vision or imagination, neither Oliver [Cowdery] nor David [Whitmer] & also that the eight witnesses never saw them & hesitated to sign that instrument for that reason, but were persuaded to do it,1 … the last pedestal gave way, in my view our foundations was sapped & the entire superstructure fell a heap of ruins, I therefore three week[s] since … renounced the Book of Mormon with the whole scene of lying and deception practiced by J[oseph]. S[mith] & S[idney]. R[igdon].2

Provocatively, George A. Smith found nothing challenging about Martin Harris’s 1838 testimony in Kirtland.3 According to Smith’s, Burnett’s, and Warren Parrish4 various accounts, Martin Harris arose and said something to the effect that he was sorry for any man who rejected the Book of Mormon for he knew it was true, and that he had hefted the plates repeatedly in a box with only a tablecloth or a handkerchief over them, but he saw them with spiritual eyes, not with his natural eyes.5

Stephen Burnett, Lyman Johnson, and Warren Parrish did, however, find Harris’s statement troubling, concluding that the gold plates were an imaginary object, and not real in space and time. Burnett explained his logic thus: “I am well satisfied for myself that if the witnesses whose names are attached to the Book of Mormon never saw the plates as Martin [Harris] admits that there can be nothing brought to prove that any such thing ever existed for it is said on the 171 page of the book of covenants [D&C 17:5] that the three [witnesses] should testify that they had seen the plates even as J[oseph] S[mith] Jr.6 & if they saw them spiritually or in vision with their eyes shut—J[oseph] S[mith] Jr never saw them any other way & if so the plates were only visionary.7

In other words, the physical reality of the gold plates was the pivotal piece of evidence upon which hinged Burnett’s and others’ commitment to the church. Disillusioned by Joseph Smith’s and Sidney Rigdon’s financial failures, they said the only reason they remained in the church was because they believed that Joseph Smith had translated an ancient American record. The idea that the plates were seen only in vision blew away their last thread of hope.

That George A. Smith heard Martin Harris as giving a firm declaration of the reality of the plates while Burnett heard Harris as equivocating gives us pause. In light of the impact of Harris’s testimony, why would he have said on several occasions that he only saw the plates with his spiritual eyes and not with his natural eyes?

I’m arguing that for Martin Harris, the gold plates were akin to both the Ark of the Covenant and the resurrected Christ. Harris considered the plates so holy that he feared to gaze upon them; he also understood his experience of seeing them as being similar to the visionary experiences of the New Testament witnesses of the risen Lord. By the early-nineteenth century, most Christian authors agreed that the things of God were invisible to the natural eyes, and could only be spiritually discerned. Even though Joseph Smith taught a radical monism, asserting that the gold plates were as concrete as the stone tablets written on by God, Smith’s own accounts of his visionary experiences make use of the term “spiritual eyes.”

To flesh out these ideas, I will first discuss how veils were used in the Bible. Then I will define how various early-nineteenth-century Christian authors said it was possible to see God. And finally I will compare accounts of Joseph Smith’s and Martin Harris’s visionary experiences.

he Old Testament, a veil or covering concealed the glory of God from the gaze of the curious and unprepared. And for good reason—to look upon God or into the Ark of the Covenant meant death for most people. Only Moses and the Levite priests could behold the things of God without perishing.

The Old Testament is the product of an enchanted world that took the existence of powerful deities for granted. The question was not, “Does God exist?” but “Which God or gods do I worship?” Since this seems to be the problem being addressed by Moses, the Old Testament is full of contests between deities, asserting that Jehovah is the most powerful. Moses competes with the magicians in Pharaoh’s court. Elijah battles with the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel. However, with Jehovah inserting himself into earthly time and space, the children of Israel had to be protected from his overwhelming glory—thus the need for a veil.8

Moses set up a boundary on the top of Mount Horeb, past which the Israelites were not to go; he also hid the stone tablets with God’s law written on them in an ark built of wood (Deuteronomy 10:2-5); the Ark of the Covenant and the other relics of the Exodus were preserved in the moveable Tabernacle and ultimately rested in the inner sanctum of Solomon’s temple, with the Ark itself as the mercy seat or throne of Jehovah. This concealment prevented the people from directly seeing God. While God’s power was dramatically manifest during the plagues on Egypt, and in the raining of manna from heaven, His presence was veiled from the direct gaze of the children of Israel. Why? The Lord specifically instructed Moses, in fact, to set bounds on Mount Horeb to ensure that the people did not break through to gaze, and many of them perish (Exodus 19:1-25).

Significantly, not only Moses, but also the Levites were able to look upon the divine without perishing, but to do so required ritual preparations:

And [Moses] took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient. And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words. Then went up Moses, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel: And they saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness. And upon the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not his hand (Exodus 24:7-11).

This passage illustrates that other Israelites besides Moses saw God and lived to tell about it.

In contrast, when the men of Beth-shemesh peered into the Ark, they were killed. From the first book of Samuel, we learn: “And [the Lord] smote the men of Beth-shemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the Lord, even he smote of the people fifty thousand and threescore and ten men: and the people lamented, because the Lord had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter. And the men of Beth-shemesh said, Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God? and to whom shall he go up from us?” (1 Samuel 6:19-20).

The priesthood was designated as a specific inheritance or blessing. While other tribes were given inheritances of land, the Levites were given the responsibility of protecting the ark and performing the ritual sacrifices.9 “At that time the Lord separated the tribe of Levi, to bear the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister unto him, and to bless in his name, unto this day.”10

The gold plates call to mind these same Old Testament themes of the veil and of priesthood.

Now, the Christian writers of the New Testament faced an altogether different problem, and this altered their teachings about the meaning of the veil. The question they addressed was: Is Jesus of Nazareth the promised Messiah, the Lord of the Old Testament made flesh? The challenge was not discerning the reality of Jesus—he is a person in space and time—but discerning the divinity of Jesus. The convincing evidence was his resurrection

Problematically, the New Testament is ambiguous about whether or not a person can literally see God. A cloud of witnesses—and the first were women—testified that they had seen the risen Lord. The New Testament, however, becomes confusing as to what it means to see God. Matthew recorded Jesus as teaching that the “pure in heart” shall see God,11 but John asserted that “No man hath seen God at any time”.12 Similarly, on the night of his arrest, Jesus also promised that he would come to his disciples and comfort them in the challenges to come.13 No man hath seen God at any time,” but “If we love one another, God dwelleth in us,” suggesting that God dwells in the hearts of Jesus’ disciples, and not that Christians can literally see God.14 However, Stephen and John the Revelator both testified that they saw the body of the resurrected Christ in vision.15 Paul famously said of one of his visionary experiences that he was caught up into the third heaven where he saw and heard unspeakable words not lawful for him to utter; whether in or out of the body, he could not tell.16

So—Christians were left to wrestle with the question of whether or not it was possible to literally see God while in the flesh. By the early-nineteenth century, Solomon’s Temple with its physical veils was long-since demolished, and in its place was the spiritual eye. To resolve this ambiguity in the Bible, most Christian authors agreed that one needed to have his or her spiritual eyes opened to see the things of God, as they were invisible to the natural eyes of the body. However, they vehemently debated how it was possible for the disciples, Stephen, and John the Revelator to see the resurrected Christ because the nature of his body was so contested. Therefore, whether one could see Christ with natural eyes or only with spiritual eyes was mystifying. These authors, though, did not discount the reliability of the witnesses’ visions. If the Bible said that Stephen saw Christ standing at the right hand of God, then Stephen did in fact see Christ in heaven.

One nineteenth-century author of the Church of England explained: “St. Stephen was a true eagle. The blessed protomartyr’s cleared, exalted, fortified sight pierced the heavens; and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Whence was this vigour, and perspicacity? He was ‘full of the Holy Ghost.’” Stephen saw “by the eye of his glorified soul, …the incomprehensible majesty of God the Father,” and “by his bodily eye, he saw the glorified body of the Son of God.17

Another Christian writer similarly longed to see God face to face, along with all the saints and angels, but he pointed out the difficulty by asking: how can we “see spirits with bodily eyes?” Of Job’s expectation that he would see God while in the flesh, this author concluded, “I rather think this is to be understood of Jesus Christ, whom Job shall see with the eyes of his body.” However, since God the Father and the angels are of a spiritual and not a physical nature, he will see them “by the eyes of [the] soul.18.

Further confusing the term, “spiritual eyes” also carried a figurative meaning. Ministers taught people about the Christian life using the senses of the body in a metaphorical way, and they explained that spiritual senses became more attuned as the natural senses became less so. This deliteralization of seeing God is illustrated by the language of figurative spiritual eyes, ears, feet.19

The Christian author Isaac Ambrose wrote, “As a man I have outward ears, and I hear outwardly sounds of all sorts, whether articulate or inarticulate: but as a Christian I have inward ears, and so I hear the voice of Christ, and of God’s Spirit, speaking to my soul: as a man I have bodily feet, and by them I move in my own secular ways, but as a Christian I have spiritual feet, and on them I walk with God in all the ways of his commandments.20

The body, likened to gross matter, inhibited spiritual vision, hearing, and walking. As the Isaac Ambrose put it, the natural life is “but a bubble, a vapor, a shadow, a dream, a nothing. But this spiritual life is an excellent life, it is wrought in us by the Spirit of Christ.21 The monastic life of self-denial somewhat frees a man or woman from the “veil of wretched mortality,22 until death completely severs the soul from the “clog” of the mortal body.23

This brings us back to the resurrection. There was much debate about the nature of Christ’s body after the resurrection—is he bodily or spiritual? According to the previous authors, the risen Lord could be seen with natural eyes because he had a resurrected body, whatever that meant. In contrast, Emanuel Swedenborg, an eighteenth-century Swedish visionary, argued that the resurrected Christ could only be seen with spiritual eyes because all persons after death pass into spiritual bodies with eyes, ears, the sense of touch, and so forth:

That man after death is equally a man as before, although not visible to the bodily eye, may appear evident from the angels seen by Abraham, Gideon, Daniel, and others of the prophets; … but principally from the Lord himself, who shewed to his disciples that he was a man, by permitting them to touch him, and by eating with them; and nevertheless he became invisible to their sight. They saw him in consequence of their spiritual eyes being open; for when these things are opened, the things which are in the spiritual world appear as clearly and distinctly, as the things which are in the natural world. 24

In 1743, the Lord personally appeared to Swedenborg. From that time until his death in London in 1772, Swedenborg wrote expansive volumes of books about his visions of the spiritual realm, a world that was as real to him as the natural world.25

In his preface to one of Swedenborg’s books about the final judgment, Robert Hindmarsh argued that the significance of Swedenborg’s message was that it embraced “universal toleration” and allowed for a non-authoritarian, non-exclusive Christianity.26 (Swedenborg famously was sought out by the queen for his gift of second sight.27) His followers viewed the New Church as the culmination of Christianity, which altogether side-stepped the controversies dividing Protestants and Catholics:

It has pleased the Lord to announce to the world his second advent by a single messenger, without signs and without miracles; which, so far from being any true ground of objection to the testimony of our author, ought rather to be considered as a proof of the superiority of this new dispensation over all that went before, inasmuch as it preserves inviolate the freedom of the human will, and enables every man to judge for himself without compulsion, according to that measure of understanding which he has received from the Lord.28

In contrast, Joseph Smith announced to the world the imminent second advent of the Lord, with signs and with miracles. He audaciously collapsed the earthly and heavenly realms into one, and instead of interpreting the entire Biblical narrative as an allegory of the spiritual world, as Swedenborg had done, he added new passages to bring the Old and New Testaments into harmony with one another. Curiously, he still made use of the term “spiritual eyes” in his revelations. Smith taught that a mortal human being can, in fact, see God the Father and the Son, but that he or she has to be “quickened by the Spirit of God.” Without this transfiguring power, “neither can any natural man abide the presence of God.”29 For instance, in Smith’s version of Moses’ theophany, Moses apprehended: “But now mine own eyes have beheld God; but not my natural, but my spiritual eyes, for my natural eyes could not have beheld; for I should have withered and died in his presence; but his glory was upon me; and I beheld his face, for I was transfigured before him.”30

Smith described his own visionary experiences in these terms. He likened the experience of having the glory of God rest upon him to having his spiritual eyes opened.

The glory of God was powerful and to be feared and respected, but it also promoted a feeling of joy, Joseph said. One of the paramount features in the accounts of Smith’s visions was the startling light that opened like a conduit from heaven. In a recital of his first vision to Robert Matthews in 1835, Smith drew upon imagery from the Exodus: a “pillar of fire” rested upon him, and filled him with unspeakable joy, but the fire did not consume the trees.31 Likewise, when the angel Moroni first appeared inside the Smith family cabin one September night, the accompanying light was like a “consuming fire,” and according to Orson Hyde, inflicted a violent blow to Joseph’s body.32 The angel’s countenance was “like lightning,” but also radiated “tranquility.” Therefore, the fear receded quickly, and Joseph recollected the “rapture of joy” he felt in the angel’s presence.33

Smith’s visions transported him into a spiritual realm. In several accounts, he indicated that after his visions closed, when he came to himself, he found himself lying on his back in the clearing. According to Robert Matthews, Smith said of his first interview with the Angel Moroni, “during the time I was in this vision I did not realize any thing else around me except what was shown me in this communication.”34

Similarly, Orson Pratt’s 1839 account of Joseph’s first vision indicated that “his mind was caught away, from the things of the World, and he was immediately wrapt in a Heavenly Vision.”35

Orson Hyde’s 1842 account argues that the world around him had to be taken from his view, “so that he would be open to the presentation of heavenly and spiritual things.”36 The vision was all-consuming and overwhelming to the natural senses of the body.

While in such a visionary state, the Lord could show Joseph the works of his hands and the doings of men and women on earth. Peering in crystals was just the beginning of his journey as a seer. John Alger shared at an 1893 church meeting that when he was a young boy in Kirtland, he had been in the home of Father Smith. There he heard the prophet make a declaration about his first vision. While telling the story, Joseph put his finger to his right eye, and said that God touched his eyes with his finger and said, “Joseph, this is my beloved Son hear him.” Alger explained that as soon as the Lord had touched the boy’s eyes with his finger, young Joseph immediately saw the Savior.”37

Such knowledge was dangerous. When Joseph first uncovered the plates in the ground, he was shocked as he tried to remove them.38 According to James A. Briggs, Joseph testified in court that the devil fought him for the plates, propelling him into the air.39 In another account, the angel Moroni warned Joseph that the “prince of darkness” and his army would be after him, and that his only protection lay in strict obedience to the commandments of God.40

Another danger of seeing visions was that Joseph had to return to real life afterward. Amazingly, speaking with God face to face did not make the young Joseph immune to the common mistakes of adolescence. As the experience receded into memory over the next several years, the daily necessities of farm life and conflicts with neighbors brought him back down to earth. Living “in the flesh” or in the natural body was like feeling the pull of the earth’s gravity. According to Edward Stevenson, though, when Joseph spoke of his visions publicly for the first time in the Michigan Territory in 1834, his “countenance…shone;” Joseph raised his hand in an oath as he spoke. Stevenson remembered Joseph as declaring in his “plain simple way,” “I am a witness that there is a God, for I saw Him in open day, while praying in a silent grove, in the spring of 1820.” Even though not all accepted baptism, no one there who heard Joseph testify “dared to dispute,” so convincing were his words and demeanor, Stevenson wrote.41

By 1843, one can detect both resignation and resilience in Joseph’s colloquial narration to David White of his first vision. He has grown accustomed to being called a fool, and jokes that at least his critics give him credit for keeping smart men about him. This interview account is striking for its straightforwardness and lack of mysticism in that he expresses no anxiety about whether or not White will believe him.42 Joseph told White that he went to the clearing on his father’s farm where he had left his axe in a stump. He kneeled down and asked a simple, brief question, “O Lord, what church shall I join?”43

Significantly, Joseph Smith taught and exemplified his cosmological idea that seeing beyond the veil was both a joyful privilege and a dangerous burden, an idea represented by the angel’s countenance—it was both tranquil and like lightning. The divine presence simultaneously conveyed an elemental power and the peacefulness of an untroubled sea. When Joseph returned to the Whitmer farmhouse after the vision of the gold plates in the woods on that eventful summer day in 1829,44 he threw himself down beside his parents, exclaiming, “Father! Mother! You do not know how happy I am. The Lord has caused the plates to be shown to three more besides me, who have also seen an angel and will have to testify to the truth of what I have said. For they know for themselves that I do not go about to deceive the people. And I do feel as though I was relieved of a dreadful burden, which was almost too much for me to endure.”45 That he said they would “have to testify” is indicative of the fact that he anticipated the responsibility would become as heavy to them as it was to him.

Martin Harris then re-entered the house as well. “He seemed almost overcome with excess of joy,” Lucy Mack Smith remembered. The three men told her what they had just observed in the woods. “Martin Harris particularly seemed altogether unable to give vent to his feelings in words. He said, ‘I have now seen an angel from heaven, who has of a surety testified of the truth of all that I have heard concerning the record, and my eyes have beheld him…and the plates….I bless God in the sincerity of my soul that he has condescended to make me—even me—a witness of the greatness of his work and designs in behalf [of] the children of men.”46

Nine years later in Kirtland, that burden was making itself felt. Pressed upon by his angry brethren who had lost money to the church, Martin Harris recounted his remarkable story. The problem of seeing the divine was likely to occur to him, a man who was still burning with the regret of losing the 116 manuscript pages.47 He had to be able to explain how was he permitted to see beyond the veil, especially when he saw himself as unworthy. He remembered keenly the glory of the angel and the singular light, the overwhelming joy. He had beheld the gold plates and he had not perished. His spiritual eyes must have been opened.48

Now, to step back and share some final thoughts about the problem of language illustrated by this whole affair. Dan Vogel, the expert on early Mormon documents, argues that Stephen Burnett likely added the word “imaginary” to his version of Martin Harris’s statement.49 In other words, when Harris made the careful distinction between spiritual eyes and natural eyes, Burnett heard him saying that he had imagined the vision with his eyes shut. He concluded that all of Joseph Smith’s revelations occurred in the same fashion. Contrastingly, Harris’s vocabulary was unproblematic for George A. Smith; he found Harris’s claim to spiritual sight as convincing as he would a claim to natural sight. When Harris was challenged about the reality of his experience, he responded by equating his spiritual sight with his natural sight: Edward Moroni Thurman was about 25 when he ran into Harris at a blacksmith shop and asked him whether the Book of Mormon was true. Harris pointed to a nearby apple tree and asked Thurman if he could see it; he then said that his vision was as factual as that tree.50 (p. 116 see note). On another occasion, Harris held out his right hand and told a group of questioners, “Gentlemen, do you see that hand? Are you sure you see it? Are your eyes playing you a trick or something? No. Well, as sure as you see my hand so sure did I see the angel and the plates.”51 So Harris believed in true enlightenment fashion that the sense of sight was reliable and the highest of the senses, 52 but he also believed that his natural sight alone was inadequate to explain his vision. For persons like Burnett, though, talk of spiritual sight was inadequate to explain a supposed physical object; the sense of touch was more convincing. That he heard Harris as undermining the testimony of the eight witnesses by suggesting that their experience was also supernatural was the final straw.

Burnett’s reaction was based on the assumption that visionary means immaterial and that natural means material. Joseph Smith would have rejected such a categorization, but it took him until 1843 to begin to find a vocabulary to communicate his belief that there was no difference in the nature of physical and spiritual objects; the difference was only a matter of degree. “All spirit is matter,” he taught, only the invisible world is made up of more pure matter, and can only be seen with purer eyes.53 In twenty-first century parlance, his visions took place in a liminal space at the intersection of the pure and the impure worlds—both equally real. Or, whether in the body or out of the body, he could not tell, but he was still conscious of seeing.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the American philosopher William James undertook a quest to scientifically explain eccentric individuals who spoke of extreme or out-of-the-ordinary religious experiences. According to James, the hallmark quality of religious individuals was that they believed something “more” in the universe responded to their personal concerns, even if this overrode scientific laws. Ultimately, the problem that witnesses of miracles leave us with is that, as James articulated, “Knowledge about a thing is not the thing itself.” He elaborated, “You remember what Al-Ghazzali told us in the Lecture on Mysticism—that to understand the causes of drunkenness, as a physician understands them, is not to be drunk.”54 In sum, today I have treated Joseph Smith as William James treated Saint Teresa.55 Hopefully, it has been helpful. I recognize, though, it is fundamentally inadequate, for knowledge about the gold plates is not the ancient record itself.

 

 

NOTES

1. Dan Vogel argues that Martin Harris was saying that the eight witnesses had to have experienced a supernatural vision as well because Harris did not believe any person could behold the plates with their natural eyes; therefore, Harris criticized the naturalistic Testimony of the Eight Witnesses. See Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 3:469. Hyrum Smith, one of the eight witnesses, was likely rebutting Harris when he reportedly said in 1838 that “he had but too [two] hands and too [two] eyes[.] he said he had seene the plates with his eyes and handeled them with his hands.” See Sally Parker to John Kempton, August 26, 1838; cited in Introduction to “Testimony of Eight Witnesses, June 1829” in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 3:466.

2. Stephen Burnett to Lyman E. Johnson, April 15, 1838, Joseph Smith Letterbook (1837-43), 2:64-66, Joseph Smith Papers, LDS Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah; cited in Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents, vol. 2 (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998), 288-293.

3. In a letter to Josiah Fleming written on March 30, 1838, George A. Smith described the “unsettled” situation at Kirtland: “Last Sabbath a division arose among the Parrish party about the Book of Mormon; John F. Boyington, Warren Parrish, Luke S. Johnson, and others said it was nonsense. Martin Harris then bore testimony of its truth and said all would be damned if they rejected it. Cyrus Smalling, Joseph Coe and others declared his testimony was true. In this way a division arose to bringabout the above-mentioned debate and thus the enemies of truth are divided, while the Saints are growing in grace and in union and knowledge and increasing in number.” George A. Smith to Josiah Fleming, March 30, 1838, cited in “Journal History,” March 30, 1838; also cited in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:289.

4. According to Warren Parrish, who was present on the occasion, Martin Harris admitted that “he never saw the plates, from which the book [of Mormon] purports to have been translated, except in vision, and he further says that any man who says he has seen them in any other way is a liar, Joseph [Smith] not excepted;–see new edition, Book of Covenants, page 170 [LDS D&C 17], which agrees with Harris’s testimony.” See Evangelist [Carthage, Ohio] 6 [October 1, 1838]: 226, cited in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:289. Parrish’s report suggests that Burnett’s account is “highly interpretive,” and somewhat inaccurate. See R. L. Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1981),155.

5. According to Stephen Burnett’s letter to Lyman Johnson, Harris said that he had “hefted the plates repeatedly in a box with only a tablecloth or a handkerchief over them, but he never saw them only as he saw a city through a mountain” (Early Mormon Documents, 2:292). According to an interview with John A. Clark, Harris said that he saw the plates “with the eye of faith…just as distinctly as I see any thing around me,–though at the time they were covered over with a cloth.” See Martin Harris Interviews with John A. Clark, 1827 & 1828, cited in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:270.

6. Given through the Urim and Thummim in response to the entreaties of Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris in June 1829 at Fayette, New York, Doctrine & Covenants 17 reads, in part, “And it is by your faith that you [the three witnesses] shall obtain a view of [the plates, breastplate, the sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim, and the directors given to Lehi] even by that faith which was had by the prophets of old….And ye shall testify that you have seen them, even as my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., has seen them; for it is by my power that he has seen them, and it is because he had faith….Wherefore, you have received the same power, and the same faith, and the same gift like unto him” (see verses 2, 5, and 7). Verse 3 says, “And after that you have obtained faith, and have seen them with your eyes, you shall testify of them, by the power of God” (emphasis added.

7. Stephen Burnett to Lyman E. Johnson, April 15, 1838, cited in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:292-293.

8. As evidence that the children of Israel have “found grace in [his] sight,” God says he will go beforethe people but his “face” or “glory” will be veiled. See Exodus 33:15-23.

9. Numbers 18:20-24.

10. Deuteronomy 10:8

11. Matthew 5:8.

12. John 1 :18.

13. John 14 :18.

14. 1 John 4 :12.

15. Acts 7:55-56; Revelation 1 :15-18

16. 2 Corinthians 12:1-4.

17. Rev. Joseph Hall, Select Tracts from the Writings of the Right Rev. Joseph Hall, D.D., (1842), p. 63.

18. T. B. Howell, compiler, Complete Collection of State Trials and Proceedings for High Treason, vol. 5, p. 1269.

19. John Clowes provided a figurative interpretation of Jesus recovering of sight to the blind men as a lesson for gaining spiritual sight. See John Clowes, The Miracles of Jesus Christ Explained according to their Spiritual Meaning, in the way of Question and Answer (Rector of St. John’s Church, Manchester and late fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, 1817), 80-85.

20. Isaac Ambrose, A View of the Everlasting Gospel, no. 24.

21. Isaac Ambrose, A View of the Everlasting Gospel; or, the Soul’s Eyeing of Jesus, as Carrying on the Great Work of Man’s Salvation, from First to Last (Pittsburgh: Luke Loomis, 1832), p?

22. Reverend Joseph Hall, The Works of the Right Reverend Father in God, Joseph Hall, D.D., Succcessively Bishop of Exeter and Norwich, vol. 6 (London: C. Whittingham, 1808), p. 473.

23. Reverend Joseph Hall, The Works of the Right Reverend Father in God, Joseph Hall, D.D., Succcessively Bishop of Exeter and Norwich, vol. 6 (London: C. Whittingham, 1808), p. 472. see also the Rev. Hall’s discussion of the regeneration of man, in his Practical Works, vol. 8 (London: C. Whittingham, 1808), p?

24. Emanuel Swedenborg, A Treatise Concerning the Last Judgment, and the Destruction of Babylon (London: J. and E. Hodson, 1810), p. 34.

25. John Bell, “Swedenborgians, or New Jerusalemites,” in Wanderings of the human intellect; or, a newdictionary of the various sects into which the Christian religion, in ancient and in modern times, has been divided (London: Edward Walker, 1814), p. 1814. Swedenborg emphasized, “[T]hey are not visions, but Things Seen in the most perfect state of wakefulness” (Swedenborg, A Treatise Concerning the Last Judgment, and the Destruction of Babylon (London: J. and E. Hodson, 1810), p. 35). In other words, with his spiritual eyes opened, he could see the spiritual world in the same way that he saw the natural world with his natural eyes opened. They were not dreams he beheld during the night while he slept. The main idea for Swedenborg was that the type of body you inhabit determines the type of world you can see with your eyes, i.e., while in the natural body during this lifetime, a man only sees the natural world about him with his natural eyes; in contrast, after death, all people are “clothed with a spiritual body,” and “a spiritual man sees a spiritual man as clearly as a natural mansees a natural man” (p. 36). Swedenborg taught that the final judgment had already occurred in the spiritual world in 1757 and had resulted in greater benevolence, good will, and enlightenment in the natural world (Robert Hindmarsh, Preface to Swedenborg, A Treatise Concerning the Last Judgment (London: J. and E. Hodson, 1810), p. 4-5).

26. Hindmarsh, Preface to Swedenborg, A Treatise Concerning the Last Judgment, p. 4.

27. Note about Swedenborg’s popularity.

28. Hindmarsh, Preface to Swedenborg, A Treatise Concerning the Last Judgment, pp. 9-10.

29. D&C. 67:11-13.

30. Moses 1:11.

31. “Joseph Smith Recital to Alexander Neibaur, May 24, 1844,” Alexander Neibaur, Journal, May 24, 1844, LDS Church History Library, cited in Vogel, EMD, 1:189-190; see also “Joseph Smith Recital to Robert Matthews, November 9, 1835,” Joseph Smith, Diary, November 9, 1835, 23-26, Joseph Smith Papers, LDS Church History Library; cited in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:43-45.

32. Similarly, according to John Taylor, the light initially induced a physical shock to Joseph’s body, but then he felt a calmness and serenity of mind. The angel’s countenance was like lightning, but of a “pleasing, innocent, and glorious appearance.” See “John Taylor Account, 1850,” John Taylor to the Editor of the Interpreter Anglais et Francais, June 25, 1850, Millennial Star 12 (August 1, 1850): 235-247; cited in Vogel, EMD, 1:193.

33. Orson Hyde Account, 1842,” Orson Hyde, Ein Ruf aus der Wüste, eine Stimme aus dem Schoose der Erde (Frankfurt, Germany: n.p., 1842), 13-30; translated into English by Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:161-168.

34. “Joseph Smith Recital to Robert Matthews, November 9, 1835,” in Vogel, EMD, 1:44.

35. “Orson Pratt Account, circa 1839,” William I. Appleby, “Biography and Journal of William I. Appleby, Elder in the Church of Latter Day Saints,” 1848, 30-33, LDS Church History Library; cited in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:146.

36. “Orson Hyde Account, 1842,” cited in Vogel, EMD, 1:163.

37. “John Alger Account, Circa 1831-1838 (Kirtland, Ohio),” Karl A. Larson and Katherine Miles Larson, eds., Diary of Charles Lowell Walker, 2 vols. (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1980) 2:755-756; cited in Vogel, EMD, 1:208.

38. In his first attempt at writing down his first vision, Joseph Smith indicated that he was confused when he went to the woods to find the plates; when he tried to obtain them, he was unable to do so, and he wondered if he was dreaming or imagining the gold plates, but as he thought about it, he knew it wasn’t a dream. He then prayed earnestly, asking why he couldn’t obtain the plates, and then the angel appeared and chastened him. “Joseph Smith History, 1832,” Joseph Smith, History, 1832, Joseph Smith Letterbook, 1:1-6, Joseph Smith Papers, LDS Church History Library; cited in Vogel, EMD, 1:29.

39. “James A. Briggs Account, late March 1834 (Painesville, Ohio),” James A. Briggs to Arthur Deming, March 22, 186, Naked Truths About Mormonism, January 1888, 4; cited in Vogel, EMD, 1:205-206.

40. Orson Hyde wrote, “[Joseph] went to the designated place which was not far from his father’s residence. It was on 22 September A.D. 1823, when after a little effort at digging away the earth and removing several stones stacked on each other and held together with mortar, he finally saw the sacred records with his natural eyes. While he viewed these hallowed treasures in wonder and awe, behold, the angel of the Lord who had already visited him previously, again stood at his side. And hissoul was again enlightened as on the previous evening, and he was filled with the Holy Ghost, and the heavens were opened and the glory of the Lord shone around him.” It was at this point that the angel told him to “Look!” and then Joseph was warned with the vision of the “prince of darkness” passing by. See “Orson Hyde Account, 1842,” cited in Vogel,EMD, 1:165, emphasis added.

41. “Joseph Smith Recital to Pontiac (MI) Saints, October 1834,” taken from various records, mostly by Edward Stevenson; cited in Vogel, EMD, 1:35-40.

42. Joseph told David White that he does not tell the Saints something was a revelation if it was only his own best judgment or thoughts. “Revelation” for Joseph meant a face-to-face vision and conversation with angels. When faced with a “quandary,” he said, he prays to the Lord and if he does not receive a direct answer, he makes the best decision he can. See “Joseph Smith Interview with David White, 29 August 1843,” David White, “The Prairies, Nauvoo, Jose Smith, the Temple, the Mormons, &c.,” Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette 58 (September 15, 1843): 3; reprinted in (New York) Spectator, September 23, 1843; cited in Vogel, EMD, 1:181-182.

43. “Joseph Smith Interview with David White, 29 August 1843,” cited in Vogel, EMD, 1:181-182.

44. For descriptions of the three witnesses’ experiences, see Joseph Smith, History of the Church 1:54-55, first published in Times and Seasons 3 [1842]:897-898, and Lucy Mack Smith, preliminarymanuscript of Biographical Sketches, also cited in Biographical Sketches, p. 139; both cited in R. L. Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (1981), 12-15.

45. Lucy Mack Smith, preliminary manuscript of Biographical Sketches, also cit. Biographical Sketches, p. 139.

46. Lucy Mack Smith, preliminary manuscript of Biographical Sketches, also cit. Biographical Sketches, p. 139; see also “A Dying Testimony Given By Martin Harris, To William Pilkington, July 9th 1875,” LDS Church History Library; and Joseph Smith, “History of Joseph Smith,” Times and Seasons 3 (1842): 898.

47. Note about loss of 116 pages. Many Palmyra residents concluded that Martin Harris was gullible and had been duped by Joseph Smith. See R. L. Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, (1981), chapter 7;

48. Martin Harris was afraid to look in the interpreters and to illicitly open the box containing the plates. See “Martin Harris Interview with Joel Tiffany, 1859,” in “Mormonism—No. II,” Tiffany’s Monthly. Devoted to the Investigation of the Science of Mind, in the Physical, Intellectual, Moral and Religious Planes Thereof 5 (August 1859): 163-170; and “A Letter Written by Professor Anthon,” Charles Anthon to Rev. Coit, New York, April 3, 1841, in John A. Clark, Gleanings By the Way (Philadelphia: W. J. & J. K. Simon, 1842), 232-238; compare with Numbers 4:5-20.

49. See “Stephen Burnett to Lyman E. Johnson, 1838,” Vogel, EMD, 2:291; see also R. L. Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (1981), 155-159.

50. Private family records of Edward Moroni Thurman, copied by Ray S. Thurman, Grover, Wyoming, cited in R. L. Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (1981), 116.

51. Statement of William M. Glenn to O. E. Fischbacher, May 30, 1943, Cardston, Alberta, Canada, cited in Deseret News, October 2, 1943; also cited in R. L. Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (1981), 116.

52. Schmidt summarizes the link between the Enlightenment and the symbol of the eye: “With its clear-eyed pursuit of detached observation, imperial sweep, and visual instrumentation, the Enlightenment was the keystone in the arch of the eye’s ascendancy. ‘The ocular obsession of the Enlightenment thought,’ as historian of the senses Constance Classen has recently labeled it, served to clinch the gaze’s domination of the modern sensorium. So the favored story goes. From this criticalperspective, the consumer society of spectacle, with its mediated and cinematic pleasures, becomes little more than the froth on the Enlightenment’s visual wave.” In Classical thought, Aristotle exalted vision as the highest sense, with hearing in second place; taste and touch were associated with animality. Christians had reservations about the eye’s vulnerability to seduction, but Augustine and Aquinas appropriated the classical hierarchy of the senses for their religious purposes. See Leigh Schmidt, Hearing Things (2003), p. 16; see also Constance Classen, Worlds of Sense: Exploring the Senses in History and Across Cultures (Routledge, 1993).

53. D&C 131:7-8.

54. In his concluding chapter, James balanced out the extreme examples in his book with the more common variety of religious experiences—the common feature to all religious individuals was their belief that a higher power responded to their personal concerns. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 361.

55. William James took people’s mystical experiences seriously, but also with a dose of skepticism. The three witnesses also experienced the questioning of strangers who were looking for a naturalistic explanation for their vision of the plates, but the witnesses always rebuffed such attempts. Near the end of Martin Harris’s life, a man named George Godfrey visited him in his last illness and purposefully waited until he was in a semiconscious state to suggest that he had been deceived somehow by his vision. Harris emphatically responded, “I know what I know. I have seen what I have seen, and I have heard what I have heard. I have seen the gold plates….An angel appeared to me and others.” Affidavit to John E. Godfrey, June 2, 1933; and Affidavit of George Godfrey, October 29, 1921, original still held by attesting notary John J. Shumway, Garland, Utah; cited in R. L. Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (1981), 117. Similarly, Joseph Smith III recorded an examination of the Book of Mormon manuscript at the Whitmer home in 1884 by a committee of the 19 it is fundamentally inadequate, for knowledge about the gold plates is not the ancient record itself. Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. A skeptical Richmond military officer was present, and he suggested to David Whitmer the possibility that he “had been mistaken and had simply been moved upon by some mental disturbance or hallucination, which had deceived him into thinking he saw” the angel, plates, and other objects. Joseph Smith III wrote, “How well and distinctly I remember the manner in which Elder Whitmer arose and drew himself up to his full height—a little over six feet—and said, in solemn and impressive tones: ‘No sir! I was not under any hallucination, nor was I deceived! I saw with these eyes, and I heard with these ears! I know whereof I speak!’” The officer then withdrew with the RLDS president and confessed the difficulty of belief “for us everyday men,” but added, “[O]ne thing is certain—no man could hear him make his affirmation, as he has to us in there, and doubt for one moment the honesty and sincerity of the man himself. He fully believes he saw and heard, just as he stated he did.” See Memoirs of Joseph Smith III, cited in Mary Audentia Smith Anderson, Joseph Smith III and the Restoration (Independence, Mo., 1952), 311-312; for a similar conclusion made by a newspaper reporter of Whitmer’s honesty, see Richmond Democrat, January 26, February 2, 1888, attreibuted to “an article written by Joe Johnson….,” cited in R. L. Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, (1981), 87-89.